Defining the range of the trumpet

Intro

For the most part the purpose of this article is as a reference. A lot of trumpet players love to talk about high notes. But there is also a lot of discussion about how to define these notes. At what point is it acceptable to start using terms like “Double High”? Is “High A” the one that sits a tone above the treble staff, or an octave higher than that? Some people believe that there is already an accepted terminology and that others just don’t know it. All I’m going to do here is explain the terms that I have gravitated towards from talking with other players for a long time and explain why I’ve come to these conclusions. My intention then is to stick to this formula in further writings, in my teaching, and general discussions.

System 1: Scientific Pitch Notation

Scientific Pitch Notation is a system based upon a standard 88-key piano. Although different manufacturers of electronic keyboards have produced instruments that recognise this system differently, the original system recognises the middle C on a piano as “C4”. All tones that ascend from this point until the next C are also designated with the number 4, for example the standard tuning note in an orchestra would therefore be A4. The following graphic shows how the transposed range of the trumpet would look when following this system. Now that it has been explained I will use it as a reference for the rest of the article.

I have included the F#3 as it is the lowest note on a standard trumpet, and G6 for reasons I’ll explain…

System 2: Supers, Highs, Pedals and Doubles

Having a numbered system is really nice if you want to be specific, but it’s not really what people use in every day conversation. “Did you know that the Michael Haydn Concerto goes all the way up to G6 on a nat? That’s like a Bb6 on a modern-pitch Bb trumpet!” said nobody ever. So instead we tend to use terms like “high”, which has exactly the opposite problem. What many would call a “High A” is an octave lower than the note I would think of upon hearing those words. So who gets to decide? Well I think that Maynard Ferguson was a pretty good authority on this matter and so I would stick with his answer to the question: C7 is called “Double High C”, for the octave descending from there the notes are “High” and below that they’re not. Therefore a G6 is known as High G, not Double High G and an A5 is not and should not be referred to as high, ever. Thanks Maynard.

When I was a teenager I played in a few big bands and the terminology that was used was slightly different. I think that it’s almost an exclusively British term, as I’ve seen in online discussions that people in other countries deny the existence or validity of the term (and often quite rudely), but we used to call notes above D5 “Super”. It made it sound like a real achievement to be able to play a “SUPER F“. I haven’t heard this in many years and so wonder if it’s still used.

When going below the note F#3 we venture into the range of pedal tones. Pedal C (C3) is on the diagram above and Double Pedal C is an octave lower than that (C2). Theoretically Triple Pedal C (C1) is down there too, but so far my practice has only allowed me a reliable Double Pedal Db. Sometimes adding a semitone to your range is harder than a perfect fourth!

The only other terms that get used a lot, which I believe cause genuine psychological issues and resulting problems in playing are the words “top” and “bottom”. “Bottom C” is an understandable term: it’s one of the first notes that brass players learn, it is written at the bottom of the treble staff and there isn’t a lower pitched C that is generally used in music. However, “Top C” is not only inaccurate, but it puts a ceiling on perceived playable range of the instrument. When you consider the idea that we become confident in our ability to play a particular note by knowing that we can play above it, this wouldn’t be possible if there were actually a limit to how high one could play. I have found when teaching that when people don’t know what notes they’re playing, whether obscured by transposition, or playing harmonic patterns by ear, that they can play higher than any note that they think of as a limit because habits, both psychological and physical, don’t kick in and ruin everything. Admittedly I exist in a strange self-constructed environment of brass-playing elitism, but the last time I heard somebody say “Top C” I did a double take and spent hours wondering how my perspective has become so skewed.

Here is a chart of common names for notes, and often-used alternatives:

System 3: If I ruled the world

Those who know me would say that it goes without saying that I’ve come to use a system of my own for this topic. Being pedantic and daydreaming as I am I’ve found that when talking about technique that being able to refer to different registers of the trumpet is particularly useful. However, using C as a reference point doesn’t actually work very well. I want things to be uniform and so if I were to call notes below C4 the bottom register, and then notes above G5 the high register then we end up with one register only spanning a fifth and the next spanning a twelfth. I can’t deal with that, so we need to change the point of reference. If you use the note G as the upper and lower limit of each register then not only does it mean that each register can be an octave in size (more or less, allowing for an extra semitone in the low register), but also that it quite accurately defines different levels of development and reflects how we use different playing techniques for mastering each register. With this in mind I would propose the following:

Altissimo is a term that is used with other instruments and has been used a few times in reference to brass too. I think it is particularly suiting for the range over G6 as the way that notes are produced above that pitch is not that same as in the high register. In fact it is more similar to how notes are played in the pedal registers as the instrument is behaving as a megaphone rather than a resonator. The point of rarefaction for setting up a standing wave in the tube has moved too far beyond the end of the bell for a player to feel and slot notes and for many this is experienced as a ceiling in developable range. If you are interested in this topic then I would recommend the following article [click] by Dr Richard Smith, or the scientific explanation in the beginning of Kristian Steenstrup’s book Teaching Brass.

Ending

I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on this topic, and my attempts to write a shorter article. If you have anything to add then please feel free to comment below or get in touch. Like; Share; Reference; Please Subscribe… all of that!

~iii<0

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